Thursday, 9 August 2012

Getting the juices flowing

I have been a busy boy with all manner of things in recent weeks, both related to racing, and nothing to do with it. As a result, I have found little time (and, I’ll confess, little motivation) for writing on this blog.

Consequently, I feel certain twinges of disappointment about this, as I enjoy reading people’s comments, and enjoy seeing, among other things, the geographical spread of my readership.

The trouble is, that many of the areas that I feel worthy of comment are areas that you, dear reader, can read elsewhere on the internet or on the printed page. Why should you be interested in the things that I either agree or disagree with? Why should you come to this blog to read what you can perfectly well read elsewhere? What I would like to offer you, as members of a pretty exclusive group of folk who read this, is something unique; something that you cannot read elsewhere: something that is, to coin a phrase, trussers-esque.

One thing I love to do is to look back and compare the past to the present day. Sometimes this gives a great insight into the inevitability of events that unfold; other times you get completely surprised by what happens. Economists in the world of financial affairs always seem to be falling into the trap of suggesting that things will turn out the way they did the last time things were like this and yet, somehow things don’t quite fall out as expected.

In the world of motor racing, I was surprised recently on re-reading Stirling Moss’s account of the 1959 Le Mans 24 hour race at what a big topic the subject of slower drivers was: Moss’s dislike of the race is well-known, but here’s part of what he has to say on the matter:

“I think the whole race is far too dangerous, simply because of the slow cars involved, plus the inexperienced drivers. And I think the latter are by far the greatest problem of all.” He goes on to say: “This matter of inexperience in driving doesn’t really involve the total amount of racing a man has done. What counts is the amount he has learned while he has been doing it. That and his general level of ability and intelligence. A man can race every week-end for years and still come in the category of ‘inexperienced’. We have several of them around now who have put in a tremendous number of hours on circuits all over the place, and they still can’t drive a nail. It’s difficult to know what can be done about it. Really, in races like Le Mans, drivers who haven’t had so much experience in terms of numbers of races, but who have learned quickly, should have preference over those who could race till kingdom come and never learn.”

In the book, Moss also asks the winning drivers Roy Salvadori and Carroll Shelby for their views, after the race is over. This is Salvadori: “I had difficulties passing other cars lots of times this year. Mostly with the small French cars. They won’t look in their mirrors and they won’t move over. I’m afraid they just haven’t the same consideration for the faster cars that most of our British drivers have.

“I don’t think the inexperienced drivers are necessarily the most blameworthy. In fact, I noticed that some of the worst baulking was done by very experienced drivers in some of the Panhards. I think some of it was absolutely intentional. No doubt about it. They saw you in their mirrors and still baulked you.”

And Shelby: “The inexperienced drivers in small cars seem to get in your way more. Inexperienced drivers in large cars seem to try to stay out of your way. The first-timers in the little cars give you more trouble for some reason.”

Moss then presents an inspired idea: “What to do about the problem I really don’t know. But one solution does occur to me. If Le Mans was a double-twelve-hour race instead of a single twenty-four, you could drive the thing single-handed. That would halve the driver difficulties immediately. Instead of having two dozen top drivers for the twelve top cars, you would only need one dozen, so there would be a reasonable number of experienced men to distribute amongst the other entries.”

Such lovely fifties’ prose - who says that our language doesn’t evolve? Even if rules of grammar are maintained, style develops - no-one writes like that in 2012. But aside from the style of the matter, I wonder if Moss would be surprised that, more than fifty years later, the same problem exists with slower cars today. In fact you could argue that the problem is worse, since we now have three drivers per car, increasing still further the number of drivers required. Today, drivers take more care in ‘not saying the wrong thing’, but essentially, to my mind, it has nothing to do with sponsorship, regulations or even nationality. It is part of the race, part of racing itself, and as one LMP1 driver said to me recently, it is actually part of the attraction, to be overtaking so many cars per lap.

After this year’s race, I did some analysis and estimate that the winning car made more than 1,500 overtaking moves over the duration of the race. That’s cars actually overtaken on the track - not cars stopped in the pits. I then extended this analysis to each car, and reached a total of more than 10,000 overtaking moves in the race altogether. It’s inevitable that some of these will have been easier than others, but the trick must surely be to ensure that each of one is completed safely and successfully.

And if that’s not “Trussers-esque”, then please tell me what is!


  1. I forget the individual's name, but an RLM interviewee in the closing hours this year also highlighted the 'duty of care' on the leading 'experienced' drivers in the modern era. In fact I believe the implied suggestion was that if the hare took a bit more care the outcome may well have been significantly different... My insurer appears to apply a similar philosophy !

  2. Yes, Paul. That's exactly why I come here. Thanks.

  3. As always, a fascinating and thought provoking post, thank you.

    The question of overtaking has been brought to our attention in a rather dramatic way over the last 2 years and I have to confess, the subject of heated campsite debate over the weekend of the race. I would love to better understand the differential in terms of speed, braking and corner speeds between GT AM and LMP1 and also how that difference compares to the 1950's. I expect that the performance (not just speed) difference between classes is much wider now.
    Clearly, none of us want to see flying prototypes or accidents, but we'd be stretching truth if we said that 'drama' wasn't part of the excitement. A lot of the drama comes about through overtaking and the resulting battles to continue racing. Driving standards must be high, but I for one would not want to change the spectacle and challenge that makes Le Mans what it is. It's not perfect, it's not entirely safe, the cars probably should all be the same speed, but that's not the point.

    You have to have some sympathy for the drivers, one corner when you don't check a blindspot and BANG. They are all human and whilst the prototype 'pros' complain, perhaps the responsibility to pass safely should sit just as much with the faster car?

    I'll finish by echoing what Nick articulated above. To win Le Mans, you have to finish Le Mans, and that means making it past slower cars, tired drivers and humans who are prone to making mistakes. Long may it continue.